Two senators from the so-called Gang of Eight working on bipartisan immigration reform said Sunday that the rollout of a bill that can pass the chamber is imminent, but two leading Republicans called such talk "premature" and said legislation on such an important topic must not be rushed.
A recently struck agreement on guest worker rules between two of the country's most influential business and labor groups marks one of the final hurdles that's been cleared on an issue President Obama has pushed to the top of his second-term agenda.
"Business and labor have an agreement on the future flow, which has been the issue that has undone immigration reform in the past. So this is a major, major obstacle that's overcome," Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "We've all agreed that we're not going to come to a final agreement until we see draft legislative language."
Mr. Schumer said he was "very, very optimistic" that the eight senators would come to an agreement next week so legislation could theoretically hit the Senate floor in May.
Sen. Lindsey Graham agreed.
"I think we've got a deal. We've got to write the legislation, but 2013, I hope, will be the year that we pass bipartisan immigration reform," the South Carolina Republican said on CNN's "State of the Union." "I believe it will pass the House because it secures our borders, it controls who gets a job. As to the 11 million, they'll have a pathway to citizenship, but it will be earned, it will be long and it will be hard, and I think it is fair."
Indeed, one of the biggest tangible hurdles has been bridging the divide between business and labor leaders over the details of how best to revamp the nation's guest-worker program — a fight that also helped derail comprehensive immigration reform in 2007.
But the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO reached an agreement on an array of items, including wages — workers would receive prevailing industry wages or those paid to Americans — as well as the number of workers and types of jobs they would be allowed to hold. Starting April 1, 2015, a new "W" visa program would allow 20,000 workers into the country in the first year with the number increasing gradually and ultimately capped at 200,000 per year. It would also cap the number of construction industry visas at 15,000 per year
Sen. Marco Rubio said that while he was encouraged by the apparent business-labor accord, any reports that the eight senators have reached a deal are "premature" and that any legislative language the group comes up with "will only be a starting point."
"We will need a healthy public debate that includes committee hearings and the opportunity for other senators to improve our legislation with their own amendments," the Florida Republican said. "But arriving at a final product will require it to be properly submitted for the American people's consideration, through the other 92 senators from 43 states that weren't part of this initial drafting process. In order to succeed, this process cannot be rushed or done in secret."
Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, said he agrees with Mr. Rubio's sentiment and called the proposed legislative timeline "unacceptable."
"Never again can Congress pass a far-reaching proposal only for the American people to find out what's in it later," Mr. Sessions said, alluding to Mr. Obama's health care overhaul. "The committee must have a detailed series of public hearings on the Gang of Eight immigration bill after it is produced followed by an extended markup process. A sound committee process will take months — not weeks."
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, recently sent a sharply-worded letter to Mr. Sessions after he and other Republicans wrote a letter to Mr. Leahy requesting more hearings on the issue.
"Despite the fact that I have not scheduled a markup, you have decided to criticize me for something I have not done," Mr. Leahy wrote. "I hope it is not your intention to discredit the process we undertake in the Judiciary Committee before we begin."
Mr. Obama recently said he's confident a bill can be passed before the end of summer if, as Mr. Schumer indicated, senators introduce a bill in early April.
David Axelrod, a former White House senior adviser, says there's "no doubt" the president wants comprehensive immigration legislation passed.
"He wants this accomplishment," Mr. Axelrod said on "Meet the Press." "This is a legacy item for him."
• This article is based in part on wire service reports
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